"Kowaiii yo....kowai...(I'm scared)" moaned a four year old from somewhere in the middle of the huddle. Her friend put an arm around her shoulders, and the group of kindergardners stumbled the last few feet to what was usually the door to the rec room, but now revealed itself in the shuddering beam of Taka's flashlight as...a giant black mouth, fangs hanging overhead like stalagtites and fat, contorted bottom lip blocking the entrance. A black sheet hung down inside the mouth, blocking whatever lay within from view. To go inside, the group would have to muster their courage, step over the lip and duck under the teeth, push back the sheet and confront the unknown. And Taka would have to go first.
The group stopped in front of the mouth, completely terror-stricken, all pretense of "I'm too old to get scared anymore" left far back down the hallway. Taka stood wide-eyed and rigid, holding the flashlight in both hands and pointing it up into the blackness. His feet made little shuffles but his body didn't go anywhere. Behind him the fear of the others was only building.
Taka burst into tears. OK, I thought. Time out. The lights will go on, the teacher will come running up with hugs and reassurances and the group will get another shot. These are four and five year olds for Chrissake!
But nothing happened. The kids were on their own, and, after a minute, when they realized no help was coming, the group took responsibility.
"No yelling," said a little girl no more than three feet tall. "That will only make it worse. Here, let's see what we can do for Taka."
The tears were still coming, but slower now, slipping out in sobs as shame filled the vacuum where all the fear had been.
"Taka," said the girl. "Can you go in if I hold the flashlight?" Vigorous head-shaking and more sobs. "How about if Tim-sensei holds your hand?" she asked. Taka opened one eye and considered. "Maybe," he said.
"Ganbatte, ne!" piped up another little boy. "Do your best!"
Taka jammed his soggy little hand into mine, gripping hard, and we crossed over the threshold.
Inside, tables and chairs had been draped in black sheets and moved around to form a maze, too tall for any kindergardner to see over.
"No one leaves until everyone has a sticker!" said the little girl. "Stay together! Ganbatte!" Taka held my hand a little harder.
Suddenly, a ghost jumped out from a dark corner, waving its arms and looming over the screaming kids. My fingers started to lose circulation, but no one ran away, and the ghost retreated, sighing and murmuring.
"Go! Go now! Fast!" The group ran together into the far end of the pitch-black maze, bumping into a long table. Taka's light swept across the surface, revealing the stickers. One by one, each boy and girl peeled off a sticker and pasted it onto the sheet. The little girl who had assumed leadership went last, but as she fumbled with the sheet another ghost, bigger than the last, jumped out and grabbed her by the shoulders.
The rest of the group jumped backwards. "Ganbatte, Natsumi-chan," they yelled, moving closer to the back of the ghost. "Ganbatte! Ganbatte!" The ghost released Natsumi and faded back into the blackness.
Natsumi was crying now too, but she had her sticker. Finally letting go of themselves, the group fled, running and screaming back through the maze, down the hallway and into the classroom.
After each group had negotiated the maze and every face was dry, the head teacher, a tiny old woman with sparkling little eyes asked the students if they had been scared.
"Sugoku kowakatta yo," they shouted. "Really scary! But it wasn't so bad because we were all together. I couldn't have gone in there alone."
Taka's hand shot up. "I couldn't have done it without Tim-sensei," he said, his voice still shuddering.
"What do you say to Tim-sensei then? asked the teacher.
"Thank you Tim-sensei," he said, as formally as possible and bowing deeply. "Thank you so much for helping me."